A New Online Tutoring Market Has Emerged — In Construction. It Requires a Surprising Number of Books.

Mar 25, 2021

There’s a high-stakes exam that’s created an entire industry selling test-preparation products and services to people willing to shell out big bucks for help honing their skills and strategies.

It’s not the SAT, or the MCAT. In fact, it’s not related to academic admissions at all. Yet it has generated lots of online guides and courses, and studying for it requires many, many books.

It’s the exam to become a licensed construction contractor. And companies that offer remote instruction to help tradespeople get ready to take the test say business has been booming during the pandemic—perhaps driven by the fact that demand for construction workers is high.

“Last year, every month was a sales record,” says Neal Howard, sales director for My Contractors License, which offers online exam-prep workshops and resources.

A new company is angling to bring online tutoring services to the skilled trades. Called Upstryve, it recently raised more than $100,000 in a crowdfunding campaign through the platform Fundopolis.

The company is betting that, just like many students in school and college, adults seeking virtual workforce training want personalized support. In early experiments, says Upstryve founder Noah Davis, “we saw how the tutors established such a rapport with students.”

Exams are Open Book … and Book, and Book

For a field with a heavy focus on hands-on work, getting a contractor’s license can require an awful lot of books.

That’s because the hours-long exams required in many states for construction professionals are purposely open-book. And there’s a list of nearly two dozen titles that exam-takers are encouraged to bring with them to testing centers, covering topics like masonry, roofing and “green building.”

“There are people who are lugging in a truckload of books in the exam, having to reference the material,” Davis says.

Strategies for mastering these books are the main help that contractor’s license test-prep companies offer.

“I tell guys—and women, but it’s mostly guys—we are not here to teach you how to be a builder,” Howard says. “This test really isn’t a great example of, ‘this proves you know what you’re doing.’ It proves you’re able to find the answers in this book in the amount of time given.”

The companies also double as bookstores. A full collection of exam books can cost thousands of dollars.

Prospective clients sometimes balk at that price. But Howard says most people ultimately find their books worth the investment. When his company offers to buy books back from test-takers, few accept the offer.

“They say, ‘I kind of like these books. There’s good stuff in here,’” Howard says.

Tutoring for the Trades

Online courses for contractor exams predate the pandemic. The format works well, Howard believes, for what’s being offered: “It’s just somebody telling you, ‘go to this page, highlight this sentence, here's a question that goes with it.’”

But there are people looking for more personalized support, say the founders of Upstryve. And there are experienced licensed contractors—many of them retired—who are willing to offer it.

That double-sided demand, plus the nationwide shortage of skilled construction workers, made the Upstryve team wonder whether the skilled trades might be ready for the kind of investment—measured in the millions and billions—that has poured into online-tutoring tools and services for K-12 and college courses.

“The industry is red-hot in terms of online tutoring,” Davis says. “It’s on fire.”

Before COVID-19 struck, Davis and his team primarily offered in-person test-prep classes for aspiring licensed contractors in Florida. They often had five or 10 students in each session. When they moved courses online due to the pandemic, they say they started getting closer to 100 students in a session.

“They wanted individual attention,” Davis says. “We saw the demand for tutoring.”

So since summer 2020, Upstryve has been developing an online marketplace that matches students with tutors depending on availability, speciality, what state they’re hoping to get licensed in and how much they’re willing to pay. Tutors set their own hourly rates, ranging from about $30 to more than $100, and they can earn more from commissions on books they recommend to their students from the Upstryve bookstore.

The Upstryve team believes its tutors’ personalities will be as much a part of their appeal as their expertise. So the company created teaser videos introducing tutors, such as Miguel from Las Vegas, who specializes in framing and photovoltaics, and Zack from San Antonio, who has EPA and recycling certifications, plus a forklift license.

“We want our tutors to have a face,” says Cesar Valencia, the company’s digital marketing manager. “Our goal is to push tutors forward, and get people to understand these are real people helping you, with real experience.”


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